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Wilkens, Lenny(1937–) - Basketball coach, basketball player, Early Life, Chronology, First Taste of Intolerance

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As coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, Portland Trail-Blazers, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Toronto Raptors, Lenny Wilkens has scored more wins (1,332) and losses (1,155) than any other coach in the NBA. Wilkens is known for his quiet, sensible, and optimistic coaching style. His career was marked by consistent records rather than by championship cups. It was also fraught with NBA politics but, after more than forty years in the NBA, Wilkens wrote in his autobiography, Unguarded , “I still want to win.”

Early Life

Leonard Randolph Wilkens Jr. was born October 28, 1937 in Brooklyn, New York to Leonard R. Wilkens, an African American chauffer, and Henrietta (Cross) Wilkens, an Irish Catholic woman. He was the second of four children. Wilkens’ father was rushed to the hospital in 1943, treated for a “locked bowel,” and died from a bleeding ulcer. In Unguarded , Wilkens described recollections of a man he barely knew, a sense of injustice over his father’s death, and a yearning for his father to have shared in his successes. Wilkens’ mother was left to raise four children on her own. At his father’s wake, Wilkens’ aunt took him aside and told him, “You’re going to have to be the man of the family now.” He was five years old.

At home, both his father and mother’s family loved Wilkens. Outside, the kids called him “half-breed.” People glared at the single white mother and her darker children. Understandably, race has always been a complicated issue for Wilkens. Though he is equal parts Irish and African American, he identifies himself as black. He is proud of his roots, especially because his heritage is all he ever had of his father. Still, he questions a system that defines a person by the color of his skin. “There is a racist theory in this country, that if you have a drop of black blood in you, then you’re African American,” Wilkens wrote in Unguarded . “The truth is that I’m as much Irish as I’m black, but I’ve never heard anyone say ‘Lenny is Irish.’”

Left with no reliable income, the Wilkens’ family struggled to get along between welfare and Henrietta’s low-paying jobs. Each child was afforded one pair of tennis shoes per year. Within a month Wilkens wore his out playing basketball, and covered the holes with pieces of linoleum. The Wilkens moved often, each apartment more dismal than the last. Still, Henrietta was a fastidious housekeeper and the children worked to keep the house, and themselves, tidy. Wilkens started working at age nine.

Chronology

1937

Born in Brooklyn, New York on October 28

1943

Father dies from undiagnosed bleeding ulcer

1960

Drafted to play for the St. Louis Hawks

1962

Marries Marilyn Reed

1968

Becomes point guard for the Seattle SuperSonics

1969

First season as player/coach

1973

Traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers

1974

Signs four-year player/coach contract with Portland TrailBlazers

1975

Takes a job with CBS Sports

1977

Becomes general manager of Seattle SuperSonics, then coach

1979

Coaches SuperSonics to NBA championship; receives honors from CBS Sports and Congressional Black Congress

1984

Returns to sole position as general manager of SuperSonics

1985

Takes coaching position with the Cleveland Cavaliers

1992

Travels to Spain as assistant coach of U.S. Olympic basketball team; undergoes Achilles’ tendon surgery, and nearly dies from blood clots

1993

Begins coaching Atlanta Hawks

1995

Beats Red Auerbach’s record number of career coaching wins

1996

Wins gold medal as head coach of U.S. Olympic team

2004

Takes coaching position with New York Knicks

2005

Resigns from Knicks under questionable circumstances

First Taste of Intolerance

When Wilkens went to St. Louis in 1960, he suffered repeated bouts of discrimination; he had trouble finding an apartment to rent, and was denied service in certain restaurants. Wilkens was shocked by the new world he had entered. He and his young wife, Marilyn Reed, bought a house in a St. Louis neighborhood only to watch their neighbors put up “for sale” signs; someone even poisoned the couple’s dog.

After watching the first part of the season from the bench, Wilkens finished the year in the starting lineup, setting a team record for the highest shooting percentage by a guard. Wilkens began to hear two incredible words from veteran players: “Nice game.”

Life in the modern NBA is very different from Wilkens’ early days as a pro player. There were no private jets, no decadent parties, none of the luxuries today’s NBA stars take for granted. There were often no lockers in the locker rooms, just a nail to hang clothes on. Locker rooms and showers were always too hot or too cold, Wilkens remembered. They had to wash their uniforms in tiny hotel sinks. They ate coffee and doughnuts for breakfast. Wilkens had to work a desk job during the summer breaks to earn money. Still, he wrote in Unguarded , “That was all part of the almost blue-collar world of the NBA back then.”

The year 1968 was a low point in Wilkens’ career. With seven years in the NBA and four All-Star games under his belt, he left the Hawks. His final season was plagued by politics and infighting. The team won fifty-six games and Wilkens finished second to Wilt Chamberlain in the MVP voting, but management refused to offer him a salary competitive with that of his fellow players. The fledgling Seattle SuperSonics, headed into its second season, offered him $75,000 a year for two years. So Wilkens and his wife got a fresh start in Seattle.

Another Shot at the Olympics

“I wanted to be the head coach of the first Dream Team,” Wilkens wrote in Unguarded , mainly because of his missed chance at the 1960 Olympics as a player. Instead, head coach Chuck Daly named Wilkens assistant coach of the 1992 Olympic basketball team. Wilkens felt slighted, but sucked up his ego and took the job. The team was made up of NBA pros, including Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird. It was “the greatest basketball team the world has ever seen,” Wilkens wrote, and they took home the gold medal. After the Olympics, Wilkens underwent surgery to mend a torn Achilles’ tendon and suffered blood clots that nearly killed him. He later admitted it was a bad idea to return to coaching for the 1992–93 season. The team won fifty-four games that season and lost to the Bulls in the playoffs. But Wilkens was exhausted and needed a fresh start.

After a bidding war between the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, and Atlanta Hawks, Wilkens signed a five-year $1.5 million-per-year deal with the Hawks. They won fifty-seven games during the 1993–94 season, which was respectable. It meant the most to Wilkens, because he broke legendary Boston Celtic’s coach Red Auerbach’s record of 938 career-coaching victories. He was voted NBA Coach of the Year, and was in a position to clinch his dream of coaching the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.

Wilkens had won more games than any coach in history and by many counts was underappreciated for it. When he was asked to coach the 1996 Olympic team, he was awash with emotion; he was proud and knew he had earned it, but he wished his father could be there to see it. He also felt pressure to win.

The 1992 Dream Team’s Johnson, Jordan, and Bird had retired. The 1996 team leaders were John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal. “Not exactly a bad team,” according to Wilkens, but a team that faced bigger challenges: they had little time playing together, were “flat” during exhibition games, and were mobbed by fans during the Games in Atlanta. Wilkens held the team together, and was relieved to win the gold.

In his seven years with the Atlanta Hawks, the team remained stuck in a “rut,” which consisted of a respectable fifty wins per season, and a run at the playoffs each year. Unable to clinch a championship, Wilkens was forced to resign. “When you’re a coach,” Hawks’ general manager Pete Babcock said at a press conference (as quoted in Unguarded ), “you become a lightning rod for what happens in an organization. It doesn’t mean it’s fair or right, but it’s the reality of the situation.”

In early 2004, at age 66, Wilkens was hired by New York Knicks’ president Isaiah Thomas. After several seasons in what the New York Times called a “downward spiral,” Thomas was thankful to have someone with Wilkens’ experience on his team. Thomas told Jet , “I thought it was the perfect fit.” A year later, Thomas had different thoughts, and Wilkens resigned from the Knicks. Many believe Wilkens’ lackluster performance with the Knicks was a symptom of family problems: His mother was seriously ill in a Brooklyn nursing home and his wife, Marilyn, remained in Seattle when he took the job in New York. Team management insisted that Wilkens was not forced out, despite rumors to the contrary. Some suggested the move would point to Wilkens’ retirement.

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